How can I travel to Saudi Arabia?

August 5, 2015

Cuba is now open to tourism. People are still paying thousands of dollars to tour North Korea (state sponsored, but still). And while most of the American media is spouting information regarding Syria and most of the middle east as a death trap, I find myself wondering about the answer to this question. There may be a simple solution I simply haven’t discovered, but Saudi Arabia seems to be off limits for tourists. Not that it has much of a draw in the first place: women aren’t allowed to drive and have to fear a ridiculous amount of street harassment (the product of a sexually conservative culture finding a vent), and the weather reaches boiling temperatures, with infrequent sandstorms and only five days of rain a year.

So why go? Because it’s different. Because it’s there. Because there are so many bureaucratic roadblocks I want to find a way through the chaos. Because I think it will be funny to travel to the middle of nowhere and find a Cheesecake Factory in Jeddah. As of today, I know of the following ways Americans can visit SA:

Makkah - Kaaba full resolution - Saudi Arabia
“Makkah – Kaaba full resolution – Saudi Arabia” by marviikad

1. Convert to Islam, or be born Muslim

The Hajj is an annual pilgrimage a Muslim makes to Mecca, and one of the few acceptable ways an American Muslim can enter Saudi Arabia. For foreigners, though entry is allowed (who would authorities be if they denied the faithful entry to the holy sites?), there are still many stipulations:

– All accommodation and transportation must be arranged through a government-sponsored travel agent
– An official permit is required to perform Hajj
– Travel is only permitted between Jeddah (entry and exit point), Mecca (birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad), and Medinah (resting place of the Prophet Muhammad)
– Women under 40 must be accompanied by a male relative

The list goes on, but sufficed to say, it’s not easy for even a true believer to gain access to Saudi Arabia. Another option is Umrah. Unlike the Hajj, which can only be performed at a specific time of year and considered a necessary part of keeping the faith, the Umrah isn’t strictly required but perfectly acceptable for those who can afford it. In addition, one can visit Mecca on Umrah at any time of year. The same government requirements exist, but pilgrims can journey anytime from January to December.

So… can I utilize this to gain entry? Probably not. Even if I were to “convert” to Islam in the US (I’ve heard it’s easier in Germany) and get an official document stating so, I would still face scrutiny in the country and wouldn’t exactly be free to make my way to any site I’d choose. I’d love to be able to use my Hyatt free nights at a fancy hotel in Jeddah or Riyadh, but I’m uncertain if the travel agent would allow me to book a hotel outside of their domain. Nevertheless, it’s one way to get a legal visa to Saudi Arabia.

US State Department information on the Hajj

2. Transit

Having a planned or unplanned stopover in Riyadh or Jeddah is probably the most likely way an average American can gain access to the country. However, even after exhaustive research online and attempting to speak to someone in the SA Embassy in LA, I wasn’t able to get a clear answer. Saudi Arabia definitely used to have 72-hour transit visas available, but no longer. I assume most travelers are familiar with the idea of a transit visa: in China, if you’re stopping over from a flight from Manila to catch another to Los Angeles, you’ll have to stand in line and get your passport stamped for a visa not to exceed 24 hours (anything longer than that, and you should have applied for a tourist visa in advance).

In Saudi Arabia, it seems as though you might be screwed if you plan a stopover in Jeddah. I’m sure a long stopover is allowed by the government, but you may not be able to leave the airport, and certainly can’t stay for more than three days without paying a fee. Has anyone out there put this to the test? If an American landed in Jeddah without any notice to a consulate or embassy, would he be allowed to leave the airport for three days, or confined to the prayer room in Terminal E?

3. Business

The final option on my table is having legitimate business in the country. This could go a number of ways:

– Be employed by a US company that has a branch in Saudi Arabia
– Sent to SA at the request of a local company (to partner up, or poach me)
– Start my own company in SA with an official business visa
– Introduce SA to the world as part of my travel business, like Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain in Saudi Arabia part 1 by westasiareview

I’ll still be doing my research on visas and flights. 40,000 Delta Skymiles gets me from Los Angeles to Jeddah. The Flight Reviews posts information every so often on sales and how to book cheap flights. One way…

2 Responses to How can I travel to Saudi Arabia?

  1. Daniele on August 9, 2015 at 2:52 pm

    Hi, I’ve been to Saudi few times for work and it’s a very special place indeed.
    Once I took a train across the desert from Ryad to Dhammam, a real experience!
    Even being employed by a US company, you’ll need an invitation letter from a Saudi based business and go through the visa process.
    My guess is that a religious visit is the best option!


  2. Turner on August 11, 2015 at 8:47 pm

    Thanks for the advice! I’m thinking the same thing, but haven’t ruled out an invite from a Saudi company if I can find a travel/business angle.

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